Dialogue for better societies

How can knowledge and and dialogue contribute to better functioning systems in our societies? This was the leading question I recently delivered the presentation “The Model in the Middle” at Metaphorum 2016. Better functioning systems refer to, for example, industries that develop their business models that produce responsibly, treat workers fairly, and that take a conscious and non-mutilating approach to their environmental and social environments. But they also refer to governments that create better conditions for health, education, poverty reduction, etc. And also to better functioning sales departments or marriages, for that matter.

Dialogue for better business

The focus on dialogue came by several strands of thought that advocate the contribution of dialogue to solving social problems. For example, dialogue is omnipresent in best practices and standards for corporate conduct these days. The OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises values stakeholder dialogue as one of the best practice requirements of its guidelines. The UN Global Compact, the largest corporate sustainability initiative considers non-business actors such as civil society organisations as equal parties, and values dialogue between business and non-business actors. And the Global Reporting Initiative standard for corporate integral reporting considers disclosures on stakeholder management and stakeholder dialogue as a necessary aspect of non-financial business performance.
Deeper reflections on the contribution of dialogue to our lives and societies have come from a wealth of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, biologists. And from the academic cyberneticists cross-cutting these disciplines: Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask, Stafford Beer, Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick, to name a few.

Dialogue to inform better management

From a cybernetic perspective, the rationale of dialogue is to contribute to overcome the difference between the actual and the preferred state of any system. Shared meaning occurring in dialogue – or thereafter – would then affect the knowledgethat informs our judgements and plans to take action to change the system: the knowledge could be refined, rejected, newly discovered, connected with other knowledge etc. This knowledge consists of models what the system is, how it operates, what factors may influence its course, and what kind of measures or actions would affect the system. In other words, to affect and change our systems, we need knowledge of the system we want to affect, and this knowledge must hold a model of how the system can be steered, as W. Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics taught us.W ithout a clue on what the system is and how it can be affected, any intervention to achieve a system change cannot be more than a bet or a trial and error attempt. In view of the available space here, I could not summarise the fundamental issue in a shorter way here.

To agree or to disagree?

The cybernetic approach is a way of looking at phenomena. In this sense, we could – and should – consider it as a ‘ map’, which is surely never the same as the territory, as Gregory Bateson put it. In practice, dialogue to solve the system change task can be a real challenge. In practice, human beings tend to agree only with difficulty about what it is that should be changed, about the purpose of systems, and about the goals that should be applied. And sometimes they do not get to disagree. Next, if there is any agreement on the end state, there may be disagreement about how to read the facts and what they mean, about the speed with which changes could be induced, about ethical principles to be observed in planning and realising change strategies. Or good ideas may not surface at all, because people’s emotions are in the way of having a decent, productive dialogue. Paul Watzlawick’s work on interpersonal communication or Harold Pinter’s absurdist dramatic dialogues provide ample proof of that. Or people may not be interested in concrete outcomes for whatever political or personal outcome.

Design areas to be addressed

It seems that dialogue is a multi-variate set of contexts, processes, composed different (preferences for) rules of the game, participants, motives, goals, personal competence, emotions, interests etc. Several areas need to be addressed in order to (co-)design and effective dialogue the outcomes of which will actually move a system.

  1. System viability: analyse the system and how it tends to maintain its current stability and viability, and its capacity to change;
  2. Know the system’s reality: what is the ostensible system now, what physical and empirical facts can be obtained, what is the real state? (NB: space and time do not allow me to go into epistemological and ontological debates on what is ‘ real’ here);
  3. Build the knowledge model: make an effort to make the knowledge on the ostensible system, the cybernetic system analysis, possible interventions and patterns of system behaviour as explicit and communicable as possible to be enable dialogue to improve the model.
  4. Radical engagement: Address leadership, ethics, governance , the rules and setting of the dialogue. This is the human dimension, since no dialogue can be effective without active, willful and courageous involvement of people who are able to develop a genuine dialogue with those who can steer or are affected by the system that is under debate.

Application for sustainable soy value chains

The areas mentioned above were all addressed in a large group conference, conducted in St. Gallen, Switzerland, initiated and hosted by the Malik Institute and the Round Table for Responsible Soy. The group conference was conducted according to the Team Syntegrity method, developed by Stafford Beer in his essential work Beyond Dispute (1994) and further developed and applied hundreds of times under the auspices of Team Syntegrity International AG (cf. Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker (2011): A Complexity Approach to Sustainability: Theory and Application).

The Syntegration event brought together experts from various disciplines and types of organization together, that co-designed dozens of practical solutions to make the trade and use of soy in Europe fully sustainable, based on careful analysis of sustainability issues and challenges in practice, and based on a cybernetic analysis of the impacts and dynamic patterns of the soy business. The outcomes of this pathfinder event are published here.

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